If you’re like me, your education might have been a bit spotty on the Middle Ages. Or, like me, you might be familiar with the names of some of the biggest battles and have a general idea of who won, but you might not have a very complete sense of what happened, or even what battle was like back then.
Never fear, Bernard Cornwell has done it again. His latest historical novel, 1356, covers the battle of Poitiers with such detail and excellent storytelling that you’ll simultaneously feel like you were there and feel deeply grateful that you were not there.
The book follows a knighted leader of a band of (mostly) English archers in their various escapades, quests, and battles around France culminating in the epic battle of Poitiers, in which the vastly outmatched English soundly defeated the French. Archery in this time period was really fascinating, and I enjoyed the details of what it took to even draw the longbows, how much training was involved, and the amazing organization England had to manufacture the arrows the bows required.
As is typical of Cornwell’s books, some of the quests involve devastatingly gorgeous damsels, others involve corrupt and despicable villains, and there is plenty of humor throughout. In one interesting twist, the hero of the story fights against corrupt church leaders (not all of the church leaders in the book are corrupt, just one particular cardinal and his sidekick priest) who were trying to overthrow the Pope by finding a relic. The hero is noted by several other characters as being of true faith and pursuing goodness. I know that shouldn’t be any big thing, but I kind of feel like it’s unusual nowadays.
Of course the primary reason to read Cornwell is that he just nails battle scenes. It’s really amazing how he can tell the story of what is going on in a complicated and messy battle in such a way that you grasp what was happening to whom, when, and where, and convey the battle confusion and tactics and weaponry so clearly without compromising the pace. If you ever want to know how to write battle scenes, study Cornwell. He’s a master.
If you’re interested in history, especially British or Middle Ages, or if you enjoy historical fiction with a warfare aspect, I’d highly recommend 1356.
‘Fess up: do you know much about the battle of Poitiers?
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